Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she expects the U.S. Air Force to comply with strict new state standards while cleaning up toxic fluorochemicals at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda.
In a Tuesday, Sept. 22 letter, Whitmer urged Air Force leadership to comply with state cleanup laws that were established in July for PFAS chemicals in groundwater.
The new standards are lower than a federal advisory level the military is using as remediation threshold around the country. The Air Force has thus far only committed to evaluating whether to comply with Michigan’s lower PFAS standards for ground and surface water pollution.
“The State of Michigan expects that the Air Force will meet Michigan’s PFAS clean-up standards,” Whitmer wrote in the letter to John Henderson, assistant Air Force secretary overseeing installations, energy and the environment.
In the letter, Whitmer credits the Air Force for showing “renewed efforts” to expand stopgap cleanup measures that local activists have sought for years. In August, Henderson visited Oscoda and outlined plans to intercept PFAS plumes entering Van Etten Lake, where the chemicals are creating a microlayer on the surface that results in toxic beach foam.
The visit was on the invitation of U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who has been pushing the Air Force to perform interim cleanup using millions in newly appropriated money while site managers work through a years-long federal remediation process named CERLCA.
“However, it is long past time for the Air Force to commit to an aggressive clean-up plan and engage in extensive interim actions to stop the spread of PFAS contamination at and around Wurtsmith,” Whitmer wrote.
Whitmer’s letter follows Sept. 18 correspondence between the Air Force and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) about state cleanup requirements that go by the clunky acronym “ARARs,” (applicable or relevant and appropriate requirements).
Under CERCLA, (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), the military is required to comply with state ARARs at certain stages of site cleanup.
However, the Air Force has balked at committing to Michigan’s PFAS standards, which are among the lowest such requirements in the nation. Site leaders have tried to invoke arguments about federal sovereign immunity from state law during past correspondence.
The ambiguity has led to pending Congressional legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, who has authored language in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require the military to use the most stringent applicable standard during site cleanups at places like Wurtsmith or Camp Grayling.
In Michigan, compliance with new state law would entail cleaning up the individual compound PFOA in groundwater to 8 parts-per-trillion (ppt) and the compound PFOS to 16-ppt.
Michigan also has a surface water standard of 14-ppt that was established back in 2014, long before most people were aware of the threat posed by exposure to PFAS chemicals.
That rule was promulgated to guide fish consumption advisories in water bodies around Wurtsmith, which is polluted due to past use of firefighting foam called AFFF.
The Air Force says its cleaning polluted groundwater that’s going through an on-site treatment facility to the 12-ppt level before discharging it to a creek that feeds the Au Sable River.
“I ask that the Air Force carefully review EGLE’s list of ARARs and commit to apply these standards to ensure the clean-up protects public health and the environment,” Whitmer wrote.
Activists say they are encouraged by Whitmer’s letter.
Tony Spaniola, an attorney and leading PFAS activist in Michigan who owns a home on Van Etten Lake across from the base, said he’s pleased that Whitmer has “entered the fight and thrown the weight of her office behind our cause in Oscoda.”
Spaniola said Whitmer visited Oscoda and spoke to pollution activists in 2018 during her campaign for governor.
“We look forward to working with her and our champions in Congress to hold the Air Force’s feet to the fire,” he said. “There’s a long way to go, but this is a step in the right direction.”
Jennifer Hill, associate director at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes center, said the governor should take the “next logical step” by “utilizing her authority under the National Defense Authorization Act to require the Department of Defense to comply with Michigan’s clean-up standards for PFAS at Wurtsmith.”
“The longer the Department of Defense waits, the more costly the solutions and adverse the impacts will be on the people and wildlife living in and around Oscoda,” Hill wrote.
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